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New Year, New You: How to Go from Powerless to Empowered

New Years is traditionally a time when we assess our goals for the outgoing year and make plans and commitments for the incoming year. For those in the early stages of recovery, it can be especially challenging to commit to a goal of sobriety.

As the first step of a 12-Step program states, you must accept that you are powerless in relation to your substance use, which seems contradictory to setting goals to overcome it. But on closer examination, there are qualifiers in later Steps that offer hope and provide motivation.

Step 1 states: We admit that we are powerless over (our chosen substance) and our lives have become unmanageable. But Step 2 states that something – a Higher Power – can help. Step 11 suggests specific ways access to that Higher Power (prayer and meditation) and gain helpful insight about following a better path. So fortunately, while you may be (temporarily) powerless to control your addiction, you are not helpless.

Helplessness vs. Powerlessness

A lot of debate exists around the 12-Step concept of powerlessness and what it really means. Many people think that powerlessness and helplessness are basically the same thing, but there are important differences. And when working a 12-Step program, it is important to understand the distinctions:

  • Helplessness means that you can’t change something; you are stuck with the status quo because you don’t have the ability to change it.
  • Powerlessness, on the other hand, means that you don’t have the strength or resources to change a situation. The ability (and therefore the possibility) of change has not been lost…just what is needed to make the change; and fortunately one can regain strength, gather resources and move from being powerlessness to being empowered.

Resources for Regaining Power Over Addiction

Candice Shelby, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Univ. of Colorado in Denver, writes in an article for the online support group LifeRing ( that “addicts are NOT powerlessness.” She makes the point that while one is dependent, they can’t control their substance use. But once past the stage of physical dependence, it is possible to gain power over substance use.

Dr. Shelby attributes the power to change to the changing of one’s attitudes and beliefs – the subconscious, feeling-level meanings that one associates with the use of substances. As such, the following suggestions, used in 12 Step programs, work because they re-define deeply held assumptions about one’s self at the feeling level:

  • Acknowledge and take responsibility for hurting others through actions you took when addicted. (Make a list of those you have wronged or hurt.) This helps you realize that your goal of feeling what you needed to feel at the time took precedence over the feelings of those you harmed. It helps you recognize that your actions were (and always are) motivated by subconscious feeling-related motivations.
  • Make amends when possible. It feels good to come clean, apologize and attempt to make amends; and moving toward seeking positive feeling-states vs. avoiding negative feeling-states is an essential part of changing the addiction mindset.
  • State out loud the bad things (circumstances, repercussions) associated with your substance use. By voicing the negative associations, you are using the psychological technique of “negative reinforcement” to help you create a distaste for and a desire to avoid the associative agent (the substance).
  • Become emotionally mature and emotionally literate. Since experiencing difficult emotions and the desire to avoid feeling these is often directly tied to substance use, learning about your personal emotional needs, how to express them and how to resolve them in a healthier and more appropriate way is an important part of regaining your power over addiction.

In addition to re-programming attitudes and beliefs at the feeling level, you can gain power over your addiction by activating the following proven coping strategies:

  • Manage stress: Use exercise, relaxation, meditation, yoga or other stress-busting techniques regularly so that stress does not contribute additional challenges for your sobriety.
  • Use a support system: Call on sober friends and a 12-Step or other support
    group to provide companionship, encouragement and people to be accountable to while you are recovering.

Moving from Powerlessness to Empowerment

The Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, affiliated with The National Empowerment Center, a mental health service consulting organization, tasked an advisory board to formulate a definition of empowerment that went beyond the common concepts associated with the term – such as self-esteem and self-efficacy – and to “more fully capture what is distinctive about empowerment.”

The advisory board defined empowerment as including the following qualities:

    1. Decision-making power


    1. Access to information and resources


    1. A range of options from which to make choices (not just yes/no, either/or)


    1. Assertiveness


    1. Feeling that you can make a difference (being hopeful).


    1. Critical thinking; recognizing conditioning; seeing things differently:

      Redefining who you are (speaking in your own voice)

      Redefining what you can do

      Redefining your relationships to institutionalized power


    1. Learning to express anger appropriately


    1. Not feeling alone; feeling part of a group


    1. Understanding that all people have rights


    1. Effecting change in one’s life and one’s community


    1. Gaining skills (ex: communication skills) that one defines as important


    1. Changing others’ perceptions of one’s competency and capacity to act


  1. Increasing one’s positive self-image and overcoming stigma


The above definition of empowerment – developed by The Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation’s advisory board – encourages the disempowered to take more control over their own lives and to use counselors, support group peers and other helpers as supporters – not as crutches.

Taking the following steps can help on your journey toward empowerment:

  • Practice making your own decisions. Start with small, safe decisions such as picking the restaurant where you and a friend will eat. Practice in decision-making is the first step in leaving codependence behind and becoming more empowered.
  • Educate yourself (about treatment options or other recovery issues) so that you can make informed decisions. Do not wait for or expect others to provide you with all the information and resources you need. You, more than anyone else, know what is right for you, so you should be actively involved in the planning process for whatever course of action you will be taking.
  • Be proactive about filling in the gaps of your coping skills and/or emotional literacy deficits. Get counseling, use self-help groups and/or online education to resolve old issues and improve your emotional maturity. When you are not haunted by old doubts, worries and emotional triggers, you will have more confidence and your self-esteem will improve. You will be on your way to becoming empowered.

Image Courtesy of iStock

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